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Learning differences: How identifying those differences will help each student reach their individual learning goals.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Unsurprisingly, from time-to-time, I hear parents and even some educators ask: Why do we have so many students with learning differences now?

While there is evidence that demonstrates an uptick in cases of ADHD and autism, the short answer to this question is twofold: we have a deeper understanding of learning and the different ways people learn, and we are better at identifying learning differences.

The longer answer is that brain research and other advances in technology are driving us toward an educational reality in which the learning profile of every student will be identified, mapped out and used by educators to prescribe and design learning engagements that are just right and just in time for each learner to achieve his or her next learning goal.

As you know, EBI teachers are already working hard to differentiate the curriculum they teach. Differentiation is a fundamental aspect of the IB Programme. While differentiation is about supporting students at their individual learning levels at a specific moment in time (think of the guided reading levels in grades K-5 as an example), differentiation is also about providing a variety of ways for students to access the curriculum based on how they learn. Though some learners have specific and diagnosed learning differences, all learners make meaning in a variety of ways with their own preferences and areas of strength that, combined, comprise their unique learner profile.

In addition to teaching to the different kinds of learners we have in our classrooms, EBI teachers are also helping students to understand how they best learn. Teachers frequently ask students to reflect on what they have learned, how they learned it and how they can use that understanding to learn better in the future. This process is embedded in the IB programme and emerges from a paradigmatic shift in education from a focus on learning content to a focus on learning to learn.

Most likely, when we were kids, our educational experiences were framed around the idea that there was a finite body of information that we needed to acquire through our schooling experience. Now, students have an infinite body of information available to them that is literally at their fingertips through the Internet. Because the content that was the goal of our educational experiences is so readily available on-line, teachers now spend much more time on supporting students to develop habits of mind, like persistence and focus, and develop important skills in areas like critical thinking, research, communication, collaboration and problem solving. Additionally, a unique aspect to the IB programme is that teachers also talk with students about the responsibility they have for what they have learned and what actions they should take based on their learning.

With the emergence of web-based resources, like Khan Academy and Youtube, and other advances in technology, the role of the teacher is expected to shift significantly. Through a marriage of digital and on-line resources with individualized education software, teachers may serve increasingly as guides or facilitators of learning rather than the imparter of knowledge, or sage on the stage, that most of us remember from our schooling. In addition to a variety of other resources, teachers will use technology resources to track and anticipate student learning, to ensure students are learning at their level and provide more options for students to learn in the best way for them.

Currently, there are companies investing significant resources to develop applications that will allow school to track the learning of every student and support educators to offer students the exact experience he or she needs just when they need it. As an example, the ALT School, which opened in 2013 in San Francisco, has access to millions of dollars from venture capitalists to create software that would allow teachers and parents to track students and ensure they meet learning objectives through a variety of individualized learning experiences.

Certainly there is much to be cautious about in terms of the increased introduction of technology in the classroom. And not all technologies will be for every learning community. That said, I would generally anticipate the question to shift from Why do we have so many students with learning differences? to What is my child's learner profile and how can I best communicate and collaborate with the school to support that?